KIPTARAGON, Kenya — One afternoon in Might, as a chilly rain pelted the roof of his brother’s rural house, Henry Rono sipped a mug of tea and mirrored on what he known as his biggest achievement.
To most working followers — particularly those that got here of age in the course of the sport’s growth years of the Seventies — his signature accomplishment would appear apparent. Stifled by Kenyan boycotts of the 1976 and 1980 summer season video games, Rono by no means skilled Olympic glory. However his 1978 season on the observe was arguably probably the most outstanding within the sport’s historical past.
Over 81 days, as a 26-year-old Washington State College sophomore, he set world data in 4 occasions: the three,000 meters, 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and three,000-meter steeplechase. It was a feat completed by nobody else earlier than or since: Hardly ever does a runner with the stamina to interrupt new floor over 25 laps have the pace to take action over seven and a half laps with limitations. But to Rono, a long time later, its significance barely registers. As a substitute, he’s proudest of a interval later in life when he enrolled in a neighborhood faculty and eventually achieved what he stated had lengthy eluded him: a mastery of English.
“Operating to me was second nature,” he stated. “Training was my weak point.”
If Rono’s angle towards his data defies conference, it’s in character: Within the almost half-century since he first left Kiptaragon, a group of small farmsteads within the Nandi Hills of the high-altitude Rift Valley area of Kenya, his life has unfolded as a outstanding, if largely unintentional, “Forrest Gump”-style journey — one which has taken him from the top of athletics to the depths of dependancy and to almost each nook of the U.S. in between.
In the present day, after greater than three a long time away, he’s again in Kenya, lastly sober, among the many avocado bushes and bougainvillea flowers of his youth. Rono is hardly settled: He had returned anticipating a job teaching up-and-coming athletes, however native officers advised him on arrival there was no room within the finances. He’s largely estranged from his spouse and two youngsters, who reside on the properties he purchased on the peak of his working profession. Nonetheless, at 70, he’s way over the fallen hero he has come to signify inside the world of elite working.
“Henry’s such a extra advanced and endearing determine than he’s normally depicted,” stated Tomas Radcliffe, a professor of English at Central New Mexico Neighborhood School, who edited Rono’s self-published memoir. “His objectives and motivations are pure to him. Which may be probably the most distinctive factor about him.”
Rono’s early years have been marked by tragedy. A bicycle accident left him unable to stroll till age six. His father’s dying in a tractor accident round that point meant the household struggled: Rono was out and in of faculty for years as his mom scraped collectively charges. He was drawn to working by the point he accomplished seventh grade on the age of 19, impressed by Kipchoge Keino, who hailed from a close-by village. Keino’s 1,500-meter win on the 1968 Olympics ushered in an age of Kenyan working dominance, one which Rono would quickly be part of.
His expertise blossomed when he was recruited by the military, through which his duties consisted primarily of coaching. Rono’s large break got here earlier than the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He was named to the Kenyan squad and was anticipated to be a significant menace in each the 5,000 meters and the steeplechase. However Kenya’s authorities introduced an Eleventh-hour boycott, becoming a member of most African international locations in protesting the inclusion of New Zealand, whose nationwide rugby workforce was touring apartheid South Africa.
“I believed this man would come house with two golds,” stated Keino, who had been teaching the Kenyan workforce in Canada earlier than the boycott was introduced.
There was solace: After a 1973 court docket ruling scuttled an N.C.A.A. rule that positioned limits on international athletes thought-about “overage,” American faculty coaches have been more and more recruiting Africans, significantly in observe. Two months after lacking the Montreal Video games, regardless of by no means having been to highschool, Rono discovered himself in Pullman, Wash., the place a younger coach, John Chaplin, was nurturing a gifted group of Kenyan runners.
As Rono struggled to regulate to education and life in the USA, working was his option to “launch pressure.” By his second yr of coaching within the Snake River Canyon, he shifted into a brand new gear. Rono didn’t merely break 4 world data: He obliterated them in low-key meets with little competitors, on a food regimen of cheeseburgers and Budweiser. His stride wasn’t probably the most swish. However his willpower, and barrel-chested pressure, have been collectively unmatched.
“I may inform him precisely what to run, precisely tips on how to do it, and he would do it,” Chaplin stated.
It was after that climax, in most accounts of Rono’s life, that the drawn-out, tragic denouement started. Whereas there have been a number of extra moments of glory, together with a 1981 season that started with a beer stomach and ended with one other 5,000-meter world document, his luster light rapidly.
Regardless of a university diploma and a contract with Nike, he receded right into a cocoon of private struggles. Disheartened by friction with athletics’ officers again house, he started consuming with growing regularity. Like many Kenyan stars of future generations, he was careless with cash: he misplaced observe of financial institution accounts, had money stolen on airplanes and was lured into unhealthy investments by con artists. Quickly, he was drifting throughout the USA, out and in of associates’ visitor rooms and alcohol-addiction rehab. He parked automobiles in Portland, Ore., rang the bell for the Salvation Military in Salt Lake Metropolis and pushed folks in wheelchairs on the Albuquerque airport.
There have been extra uplifting intervals. Within the Nineteen Nineties, after settling in New Mexico, he frolicked as a special-education trainer and coach. He educated faculty athletes within the Navajo Nation and aspiring elites in Albuquerque and was invited for a stint in Yemen to develop national-caliber athletes there. Kris Houghton and Solomon Kandie, New Mexico-based runners who set private bests underneath his steering, described him as a “clever sage” with a reverence for hills and deep appreciation for the game’s psychological points. “He loves the pureness of somebody searching for to raised themselves,” Houghton stated.
It was round that point, nonetheless missing confidence in English, his third language, that Rono went again to high school, finally progressing to courses on poetry, superior grammar and inventive writing earlier than publishing his 2010 memoir, “Olympic Dream.” Solely one of many e-book’s 29 chapters particulars his famed 1978 season.
“He by no means talked concerning the data,” Chaplin stated. “He was not somebody to go round and beat his chest and say ‘how nice I’m.’”
Finally, as Rono aged and paying hire grew to become a higher battle, Kenya started calling. In 2019, for the primary time because the Reagan presidency, he stepped foot within the nation of his beginning, settling into his brother’s house on the identical plot because the thatched hut the place they grew up. Not all the pieces has gone as deliberate: Disputes together with his household over his properties, together with a farm and a home in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, have left him resentful. He longs to return to teaching. Other than church and journeys to the sauna — he has at all times preached the virtues of sweating — Rono not often ventures out.
Nonetheless, as he narrates his tales of previous journey, he additionally initiatives a way of contentment — and appreciation for what working has given him, even when his data meant much less to him than they did to followers of the game.
Operating, he stated, opened a path: to a world past Kiptaragon village, and to an surprising route again.